April 3, 2016
Scripture: John 20:19-31: 19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
I have a confession this morning. We’ve lived in Greensboro for 3.5 years, but, until three weeks ago, we had never been to the Science Center. Now, in my defense, for two of those years I was commuting to Duke as a full time grad student and working half-time at another church. And, Kate was in her first two years of medical school. So, we didn’t have time for much of anything else. Anyways, we finally went three weeks ago with Felder. He was a fan of the penguins.
Kate joked that I was like a kid at Christmas. I loved it. I love anything like that. Science centers, museums, zoos, aquariums–all of it. Growing up, I loved science class. I tolerated other classes but loved science. Learning about the world and its wildlife, conducting experiments, making sense of things…I had a chemistry teacher in high school try to convince me to consider a future in science instead of ministry. And, I won’t lie to you and say that there aren’t days in ministry when I wish everything was as rational as it is in the natural sciences.
I tell you all of this because I, like many of you, understand Thomas. I get where he’s coming from. If someone told you they saw a unicorn, how would you respond? “Well, sure. If you say you saw one, then they must exist.” Probably not.
And so, when Thomas hears that Jesus is alive. He’s thinking, “Wait a second–I watched him die. I saw his body being placed in the tomb. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I’m not buying it. The only way I’ll believe it is if I see him and touch him.” It’s a rational response. Dead people don’t come back to life. Zombies weren’t a part of the mythology of 1st century Judaism.
We live in an era that has seen incredible progress in human understanding of the natural world. The past hundred years, we have witnessed exponential increases in scientific advancement. And, because of this, because we live in the age of science, because we live in the wake of the Enlightenment, we are a “show me” people. We are a “prove it” people. We want the facts. We want things to make sense. Anything that can’t be explained, that doesn’t make complete sense, tends to be discarded as incompatible with our understanding of the world.
And so, in the midst of this age of reason, if we are to have faith, we want it to be a reasonable faith. We are in search of something that makes sense.
As I was studying this past week, I reread a book by Brian McLaren called Finding Faith: A Search for What Makes Sense. I highly recommend it if you are the type of person that tends to wrestle with questions about God, Jesus, and Christianity on an intellectual level. It’s actually one half of a two-part series. The other book in the series is Finding Faith: A Search for What is Real. If you are the type of person that doesn’t really wrestle on an intellectual level, but you desire to experience God--you don’t have a lot of questions, but you want to really FEEL it--then that’s a great book for you.
He suggests that, when it comes to faith, there are a couple kinds of people. And, I would imagine that we have both in this room. There are those of us that have a lot of questions and who get uncomfortable when there aren’t reasonable answers to those questions. We want things to make sense. And then, there are those of us that aren’t so worried about understanding everything or having proof for everything, but we want to feel it, experience it. We want it be be real. Which type are you? Sure, we all have a little of both type in us, but there’s likely a dominant type. I am definitely the former. I want things to make sense. Which type are you?
Now, since this sermon is about Thomas, it’s more about those of us that want things to make sense. But, I believe that all of us have a degree of that in us. Very few of us are seeking something that absolutely does not make sense. As we seek something that makes sense, as we seek a reasonable faith, a foundational question is, “What is faith?”
I like the way Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic Church in LA, put it. He said faith is nonsense. That’s not something you expect to hear from a preacher. You come to church to hear that faith makes complete sense. But, no, faith is nonsense.
There are five senses. Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch, and Taste. And, in the way we approach the world in this age of reason and science, we base our understanding of things on these five senses. A major part of the scientific method is observation. In order for something to be considered true, to be considered factual, it must be observable. If it cannot be sensed, if there is not empirical evidence for it, then we chalk it up as questionable at best.
Now, if someone completely or partially lacks one of these five senses, that doesn’t mean something doesn’t exist. If you have a poor sense of smell, it doesn’t mean that the smell of a dirty diaper doesn’t exist. If you are colorblind and cannot see red, that doesn’t mean that red does not exist. In fact, there are colors that none of us perceive. Humans are trichromats, which means that we have three types of cone cells in our eyes, allowing most of us to see around ten million colors. However, in the animal world, there are tetrachromats, who have four types of cone cells, and pentachromats, who have five types of cone cells. So, there are some insects and birds that, because they have five types of cone cells, see around ten billion colors--one thousand times more colors than we do. Now, because we cannot see those colors, do they not exist? No. They are simply beyond the limitations of our sight. To a pigeon, even those of us with perfect human eyesight are extremely color blind.
There’s a danger when empiricism is the only basis for our understanding of reality. If the only truth is what we can verify with our five senses and our reasoning ability, then anything that exceeds the limitations of those abilities is, to us, not real.
So then, what do we do with intuition? Do you know one of those people that can make connections and draw conclusions without really knowing how they did it? They just know. They can’t tell you how they know, they just know. They feel it. It is a non-sense.
Faith is non-sense. It is not one of the five senses. You can’t get it by jumping to conclusions based upon empirical evidence. Do you ever ask yourself, “Why couldn’t God just make it easier? Why couldn’t God have just made it so clear that there just isn’t room for doubt?” The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “a God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” What he means by that, I think, is that a God that could be fully proved by our powerful, but limited, sensory and reasoning abilities would be subject to the limits of those abilities. If we can fully prove and know God, then God must be contained within the limits of our comprehension. But, what Bonhoeffer is saying is that God is so far beyond the limitations of our abilities to sense and reason that there’s no way we could fully prove or grasp the expanse of who God is.
Now, we’ve messed up in the church. We’ve messed up because, as much of the world has shifted over the past few centuries to embrace what we can sense and conclude from that as the primary source of knowledge, we haven’t always responded well. For many people, it feels like faith and science are at odds. And, that’s the church’s fault. Because, at times, we’ve reacted out of fear. Or ignorance. Or self-righteousness.
The truth is, scientific progress is great. We’ve learned and continue to learn so much about our world, about how to treat diseases, to grow food, to produce energy, to have conversations with people across the world, to build incredible things. It is amazing what humanity has accomplished through scientific advancement. This should stretch us, lead us to new understandings, help us to identify where our vision of God isn’t big enough. Science enhances faith, it doesn’t undermine it.
The funny thing is, we all live lives of faith. Even people who never step foot in a church and don’t believe in God. It is an act of faith to say that empiricism alone can give us full knowledge of the entirety of our world. It is an act of faith to claim that because I can’t see it, feel it, hear it, touch it, or smell it, then it doesn’t exist.
We need both sense and nonsense. We need both our senses and our non-senses. As we seek to understand our world, ourselves, and God, our senses are important. But, our senses are also limited. Without faith, our lives are limited. Our view of the world is limited.
Sometimes, I wonder if we get hung up in thinking that faith is about certainty. That, to truly have faith, you have to be certain. That there’s no room for doubts, for questions, for confusion. But, that’s not faith, that’s empiricism. And, certainty has its limitations, because we have limitations. Faith is about embracing the uncertain. Faith allows us to move beyond the limitations of our experience and our reason.
That is a reasonable faith. It’s not about a faith that is subject to the limits of your reason, but about faith and reason in a sort of dance. Having a reasonable faith is about having a foot in both the certain and the uncertain.
I think many of us are sympathetic to Thomas, because we are him. We are products of our place in history. We are a “show me” people. A “prove it” people. We too want to see His hands, to touch the holes.
But, don’t you love Jesus’ response? “Here. You see the holes in my hands? Feel them. This is real. But, you will not grasp the truth of who I am and what I have done until you go beyond the limitations what you can sense. Until you learn what it means to have faith in the one who is beyond human understanding.”
Faith can move us beyond ourselves. When we live solely by our senses and our reason, we subject ourselves to the limits of those abilities. The truth is, we all live on faith, but we don’t always acknowledge it. The question is, in what do we place that faith? In ourselves? In our limited abilities and experience? Or in something more, something beyond us?
- How do you tend to approach faith? Do you tend to seek reasonable answers to complex questions or do you tend to seek an experience?
- What does it mean to have a reasonable faith?
- What are your thoughts on the idea that pure empiricism results in a limited worldview?
- How does faith stretch our understanding of the world?